It's a common dilemma for many: You're on a diet, but an hour after eating a meal you're hungry again. Now the newest in America's long string of food fads promises to keep hunger at bay by making you feel fuller longer.
A growing number of shakes, drinks, and snacks are hitting supermarket aisles, all geared toward fullness, with few calories. Group Danone (DA), the No. 2 seller of yogurt in the U.S. after General Mills (GIS), is offering Light & Fit Crave Control yogurt, while Unilever's (UL) Slim-Fast division has released a hunger-control Optima shake. Meanwhile, LightFull, a small California company, markets a "satiety smoothie," which has been popular at Whole Foods Market (WFMI). Even Pepsico (PEP) has orange juice—Tropicana Pure Premium Essentials with Fiber—to help keep you off the snacks.
"The key is to eat foods that have fewer calories but keep you full longer," says Dr. Steven Schnur, a cardiologist and author of Reality Diet, which advises people to fight obesity, heart disease, and diabetes with a natural diet high in fiber (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/7/06, "An Insider's Guide to Food Labels").
All of these new foods offer what dieticians refer to as "satiety," or satisfying hunger. "Satiety is the anti-diet, because when people think of diet, they think of deprivation," says Lara Jackle, chief executive of LightFull Foods. "These foods are about feeling full, satisfied, and not depriving yourself." Indeed, satiety, as peculiar as it sounds, is becoming a buzzword in weight-management circles and might soon become as ubiquitous as "low-carb" and the "Atkins diet" were in their heydays.
Weight loss is, after all, a national obsession, with Americans spending nearly $5 billion each year on slimming foods and meal replacements, according to Euromonitor. According to a survey earlier this year by TSC, a division of marketing consultancy Yankelovich, two-thirds of Americans are on a diet at any given time.
No wonder, global market-research firm Euromonitor finds that the market for replacement meals and slimming foods is expected to grow 4% this year, double the 2% growth of the food industry overall. "Obviously there is a high incidence of obesity in the U.S. and there's food available everywhere, combined with people leading sedentary lives, and food manufacturers are constantly trying to offer new diet products," says Virginia Lee, an analyst at Euromonitor (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/22/06, "Nestlé: Fattening Up on Skinnier Foods").
Hunger is the No. 1 enemy of dieters. The Yankelovich survey revealed that a majority, 53%, of Americans cheat on their diet because they're hungry and 31%, or almost one in three dieters, felt as if they were starving themselves while dieting. Food scientists and nutritionists have been working hard to find low-calorie ingredients that will stave off hunger pangs.
While researchers like Schnur have found that fiber is a key ingredient, others show that protein also works well in staving off the feeling of hunger. Most recently, the September issue of the journal Cell Metabolism reported that the amount of a hunger-fighting hormone can be increased by eating a higher protein diet. "We've now found that increasing the protein content of the diet augments the body's own [hunger-fighting hormone], helping to reduce hunger and aid weight loss," says Dr. Rachel Batterham, of University College London, who led the study.
That's why all of the new shakes on the store shelves contain either fiber, protein, or a combination of both. The Dannon yogurt has 70 calories and contains extra protein and fiber that is derived from corn and guar gum, a kind of legume. Lightfull, with 90 calories, gets its fiber from fruit puree and protein from yogurt, whereas Slim-Fast Optima, a meal replacement shake with 190 calories packs in protein and fats. "Our yogurt…changes bad snacking to good snacking and also fills you up," says Andreas Ostermayr, senior vice-president for marketing at The Dannon Co. of White Plains, N.Y.
The issue of hunger vs. fullness emerged for many food companies during the "low-carb" craze of 2003 and 2004, when many people turned to Atkins, South Beach, and other such diets to slim down, shunning breads, pasta, rice, and other carbs. "Because proteins in these diets keep you fuller longer, people became familiar with that concept," says Lee.
Of course, that raises the question of whether these new "satiety" foods will have the same short shelf life that befell the diets that spawned them. Terry Olson, vice-president for brand development at Unilever in the Americas, rejects the notion that this is just another food fad. "Universally, dieters confirm that they are hungry, and the product goes right to the core of dieters' need, which is why it's here to stay," Olson says.
Now comes the tough part: convincing consumers. Nancy Liedel, a mother of four boys in Ann Arbor, Mich., has tried all kinds of diets in an effort to lose weight. Earlier this year, she tried Slim-Fast Optima, but found that the drink didn't quell hunger. "Even though it's a protein shake, it empties out of the stomach pretty quickly," she says. According to Unilever, which markets the product, it's not meant as a substitute for any meal but breakfast. The drink is intended to be served in combination with a salad, fruit, or a small sandwich.
Nonetheless, these new foods seem to be doing quite well so far. Lightfull, which launched in January only in Northern California Whole Foods stores and East Coast Wegmans Food Markets, has seen growing demand and has since expanded to Safeway (SWY) stores and Amazon (AMZN). And the new Slim-Fast protein-packed shakes have been a huge seller, helping reverse the Optima beverage unit's slide last year to a 14.1% jump in the first half of 2006, according to Unilever. "The shake's combination of proteins and fats helps the body digest by signaling the brain that it is full and keeps you that way for at least four hours," says Olson of Unilever, which has its U.S. operations in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
Are these new hunger-fighting foods here to stay? Richard Mattes, a professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University, says that while fiber and protein do help squelch hunger, the feel-full additives don't have an overwhelming effect on weight loss. "Consumers will continue to look for one-shot items like a diet pill," says Mattes. But still, he expects that many more hunger-reducing satiety foods—both snacks and meals—will continue to turn up in supermarket shelves at least in the near term. Why? Because that's what food fads do.